I neither deserve or take any credit, JE gets it all.
Chapter 15 – Epilogue – Three Years Down the Road
"Alright Steph, you can relax now," Ella said pulling the glove off her hand. "You are progressing well and you're already at 6 centimeters."
"How much longer?" Hal asked brushing the curls away from my face.
"It's hard to tell, babies come when they're ready, but she is doing well." Ella told him. "Just keep doing what you are doing. Walk as much as you can, stop when it hurts and breathe through the pain thinking on a happy memory. You'll meet your baby today," She added with a tender smile.
Hal and I were thrilled to find out Ella had been a mid-wife for fifteen years before she came to work at RangeMan. Bobby didn't have a lot of obstetric training but took some courses in order to be as helpful as possible.
My OB cleared us for a non-hospital delivery under Ella and Bobby's supervision since my pregnancy proved to be text book simple. Because I appeared to be tolerating the early stages well we decided to stay at home to bring our baby into the world. Of course when Hal called Bobby and Ella this morning to tell them we thought it was time, they came to our house followed by several other black SUV's hauling Ranger, Tank, Les, Cal, Woody, Vince, Junior and Binkie.
They each took turns walking with me and letting me hold onto their arms when the pain began and pressing on my back if I motioned the pressure was building there. At first I was irritated at all the commotion, but that was just how our lives were, so I let that go.
"You're doing great, Steph. I'm so proud of you," Hal told me helping me to sit back up. That was no easy feat as I had gained thirty pounds during the pregnancy and it was all sticking straight out of where my waistline used to be. Three months ago I was actually accused of trying to shoplift a ball under my shirt. Hal didn't show any mercy in dealing with the poor clerk that made that claim at the toy store. I can't believe there was ever a time I thought he was a quiet man.
"You say you're proud now, but wait until my water breaks and things speed up. From what Val has said that is when my head will start spinning around and I'll begin to threaten your ability to ever walk again." I warned him.
Hal was about to respond but he saw me take a deep breath indicating the slow rise of another contraction. This time I went to my happy bank of memories and thought about the day we decided to move out of RangeMan.
Hal and I had spent a perfect Saturday together. We slept in, made French toast for brunch and smothered it with real maple syrup. We drove out of town to the state park nearby and hiked for a while pausing occasionally to make out in the seclusion of the trees.
That night we fed each other Chinese Take Out and played poker over the coffee table nibbling on left over cake my mom had sent home with us the day before. It was an ideal day that Hal specialized in planning.
I noticed it was his turn to deal but he was just staring at me instead of shuffling the cards. Then I heard the tell-tell sound of a nervous Hal when he cleared his throat.
Before I could ask what was wrong he sat down the cards and took my hands in his. I was growing nervous in proportion to how long he remained silent.
Then he looked into my eyes and spoke. "Steph, I love you with my whole heart. Days like this are how I would chose to live everyday as long as I could share them with you."
Then he reached into his pocket and my heart began to beat faster as he repositioned himself from sitting on a pillow on the floor to kneeling in front of me.
"You are the most important thing to me and if you would agree to marry me, not only would I be the happiest man in the world, but I would spend the rest of my life devoted to making you every bit as happy. Would you be my wife?"
I didn't hesitate at all. "Yes, Hal, yes I will be your wife, a thousand times yes!" I answered throwing myself into his arms.
He slipped a single solitaire diamond onto my finger where it still sits today framed with its wedding band holding small baguettes on either side.
That night we celebrated our engagement for hours until there was a pounding on our door. Hal threw on some shorts and answered to find a groggy looking Vince and Lester standing there.
Les spoke first, "Look man, we are all happy that she said yes, and I understand the need to celebrate, but I need some sleep and she doesn't sound like she is winding down any. Please tell me you guys plan on buying a house before the wedding night."
I held my breath afraid that Hal might get angry, instead I heard his laughter. "No worries man. We'll try to keep it down, but I can't help that Navel loving just has that effect on a woman. I guess your Army ears aren't used to the sounds of satisfaction." There was the brief sound of a playful scuffle before the guys said goodnight and Hal returned.
"Are we being evicted because of noise?" I asked too embarrassed to believe it.
"Technically, I believe that was their point, but I think we should probably look for a place of our own anyway. We don't always want these jokers hanging around." He replied.
It took us only one day of looking to find the perfect house. It was on a lake, only fifteen minutes from Haywood. It had five bedrooms and three baths on the top floor including a master suite that I melted over immediately. The walk in closet had a wall of built in storage cubbies for shoes. I could care less about the roof or the age of the furnace there would be room for all my shoes.
The ground floor had a large kitchen with a marble topped island. I blushed at the sight of that. There was a big family room with a solid wall of windows facing the water and a big multi-level deck leading to a small dock. The office had built in bookshelves more than sufficient to house our growing library. Until Hal got me hooked I had no idea how much I liked reading.
But, the basement sold us. Aside from a recreation room and full bath, there was a bunk room. It had built in bunk beds the previous owner had made for their ten grandchildren. When we walked in I mistakenly said, "Look Hal, the guys would have a place to stay if they came for a visit," assuming it was a joke. We both laughed at the thought not realizing how accurate that sentence was.
Until we married we only went to the house for the weekends and we rarely went alone. During the summer a contention would show up Friday night to swim or take the boat out and they would crash in the basement and help cook breakfast the next morning. Our home was quickly becoming the RangeMan weekend party house.
We tried to put a stop to that once we returned from our honeymoon, but old habits die hard and in the two years we've been married I can count on one hand the number of times we've had the whole house to ourselves all weekend long.
I wouldn't complain about it though. The guys relax when they come down with us and they let their guard and their blank faces disappear at the door. Bobby proposed to his fiancé on our dock by the moonlight and Cal told me about his past and the flaming tattoo on his forehead one night when Hal was called to the Boston office to plan a take down when Ranger was in the wind. I loved my guys even more because of the time they spent at the house. In many ways, the home we have made us into a tighter family.
The pain began to subside and I opened my eyes to see a smile on Hal's face. "What was it that time?" He asked.
"Finding our house," I told him. I found if I kept my mind occupied on something, the pain wasn't as great and I didn't think about drugs or how uncomfortable it was.
I took his outstretched hand and slowly rose to a standing position. Ella promised me the more time I spent standing the faster it would go and I was determined to test that theory. I stretched my sore back and felt a pop. I didn't even have time to say "uh oh" before Hal asked, "Is this where you are going to begin telling people my parents weren't married when I was born?"
I couldn't help but laugh at his quoting of the old Bill Cosby joke. Hal called Bobby and told him my water just broke and I heard cheers from the guys downstairs. Who knew my labor was an occasion for a party?
"I want to try and get downstairs before this gets any harder," I said and Hal took my hand gently leading me to the stairs.
We made it down three before I had to stop and my patient husband waited as my eyes closed and mind retreated from the pain into my memories.
We had gone off birth control a year ago and hoped to start a family. It wasn't a decision we took lightly – our lives were not conventional by any means, but we decided we had enough love and more than enough support to give a child a happy home and we wanted a baby so badly. I told Bobby one day I no longer needed him to give me my quarterly shots and his eyes got huge knowing what that meant.
It was hard to have the guys looking at me every twenty-eight days knowing they were wondering if I was pregnant yet. Working in an office of men means nothing when it comes to keeping a secret. They gossip like a group of old church ladies.
By the third month when my period came I cried in the bathroom. Lester was the unfortunate Merry Man to discover me sitting on the floor with my knees drawn up and my head resting on them. He rubbed my back and pulled me to him just whispering in Spanish to me until I calmed down.
When I settled down I asked him what he said. I didn't think he was going to tell me but he leaned his head over to rest on mine and he translated, "Beautiful, I told you that when the time was right you would be given a baby and it would be the luckiest child in the world to have you as a mother. No woman was better equipped to love and nurture a child."
My eyes began to well up with tears again. Luckily Les completed his translation by adding, "And I said that it would have no choice but to be happy with a large group of uncles, with one particularly handsome guy in the bunch, so willing to love it and teach it all the things its mommy and daddy wouldn't want it to know." I laughed offering up a silent thank you for my friend Les.
The next month I waited and I waited and I waited. Despite never being late, it seemed too good to be true that my cycle wasn't coming. Finally seven days after it should have started I sent Hal an e-mail at his desk. Becuase our relationship started this way, we often conversed electronically.
"Hey Hal, do we have plans tonight?"
He instantly replied, "Not that I know of. Why? What did you have in mind?"
I grinned as I typed, "I thought we could pick up a pizza from Pino's and then head over to CVS. I need to pick up something."
He was too much a gentleman to leave it at that. "What do you need? I could run out at lunch and pick it up for you."
I chose my words very carefully. "Okay, if you want to. I think Val said the best brand to pick up is called Early Response by EPT."
I smiled when I heard his shocked voice carry over the cubicle tops and then his chair hit the wall when he stood up quickly to rush to my side.
"Do you mean?" He started, stumbling over the rest of the sentence.
I smiled, "I think so. I'm a week late but a test would tell us for sure."
He picked me up and swung me around before grabbing my hand and pulling me to the elevator.
"Where are we going? I was in the middle of a search." I complained.
"We're going to CVS – now!" He informed me.
Not only did we purchase three different tests, but Hal couldn't wait. He bought me a large bottle of water, insisted I drink it as quickly as possible and then he stopped at McDonalds for me to use the facilities and try out all three tests.
I performed the required deed and capped them, carefully wrapping them in a paper towel to block my view of the results window, and ran back to the truck.
"Well?" He asked with his voice full of hope.
"I don't know yet, I wanted us to find out together." I admitted opening the towel to show him the news.
Every test was positive. There was no denying it; we were going to have a baby.
My head told me should wait to share our good news, but my heart couldn't do it. As soon as we stepped off the elevator Hal brought out his SEAL commander voice and shouted, "Attention on Deck!"
I laughed when three of the guys snapped to attention out of trained habit.
"Officer has an announcement!" He barked out next before turning to me and asking, "Would you like to tell them or me?"
"Guys, get ready to be uncles because we're going to have a baby," I said before I was crushed with hugs and congratulations from everyone on the floor.
It took a few weeks to sink in but when the morning sickness settled there was no denying it. Fortunately, that only lasted through my first trimester and from week thirteen on, I had a pretty easy time.
Cal and I continued to swim every other day and I walked on a treadmill or rode a stationary bike on my non-water days. Since the guys saw me keeping to my workout schedule they didn't bother to tease me about the cravings and sudden needs for ice cream during the final three months. I could barely turn in my chair without one of them asking if they could bring me something or help me in some way.
I don't think a pregnant woman has ever been as doted on as I have been. Ella came to me early on and offered suggestions for handling the morning sickness which worked beautifully to mange it. It was during one of her information sessions that she mentioned she used to be a mid-wife and specialized in home deliveries. Hal and I discussed it and talked to her about it, but I knew in my heart I wanted this gentle woman to deliver my baby, and I wanted it done in my space surrounded by my family…my big crazy black clad family.
The pain receded and we managed to make it all the way down the stairs before another one began. This time Lester came up behind me and pressed on my back giving Hal a chance to sit down for a bit. Bobby had done a special training class for the guys offering suggestion and tips on how to handle all the possible scenarios for my labor. Ella and I sat in the back of his class and tried very hard to keep our chuckles to ourselves.
I was relieved that the contraction passed faster than some of the others had but found I could only make it half way across the den before another struck with greater force. I leaned over putting my hand on the back of the couch. Tank jumped up and took over for Lester, not speaking, but supporting my weight slightly and rubbing my lower back in slow circles.
I nodded as it passed and got as far as the end of the couch before another one came. This time Cal booted Tank and repeated the routine. This was the pattern for the next the hour. Very few words were spoken, but each of the guys took a contraction and I continued to pace and labor.
Ella came in and took one look at me and said, "Would you like to move this to the pool?"
I nodded. We had heard of water births where the mom stretches out in a tub or pool and allows the water to relieve some of the pressure either to labor or to fully deliver the baby into the mid-wife's hands to bring up for its first breath. Of course we thought that sounded like a great idea since water was so important to us both.
We had a hot tub on the deck which we thought would work perfectly as long as it wasn't on. Hal had drained and disinfected it this morning and refilled it with warm water for this moment.
I slipped out of my shorts just keeping my tank top on to sit down. A contraction was just beginning but the water did seem to ease some of the pressure. When it was over Ella asked if she could check me again, which I gladly allowed.
It took her only seconds to announce, "I hope you are ready to meet your baby, because you are at ten and ready to push on the next one."
Bobby conveyed the message to the guys inside and I glanced back to see all of them standing with their faces pressed to the window. It made me smile until the next pain came and Ella instructed me on how to position myself low on the seat with Hal behind me supporting my back to push.
For twenty minutes I pushed on every contraction and the baby had not arrived. I finally spoke my first negative words, "I can't do it," I worried.
Bobby snapped his fingers and the sliding doors opened allowing the guys to come out and stand behind me around the tub.
"Oh yes you can Steph. You aren't alone. We're all here and we all know you can do it. Now on the next one I want you to dig deep and find the strength you need to push again. If you need it, we are all here and will gladly give you all the strength you need." Hal told me.
I heard a few assents from the guys just as that familiar feeling started telling me it was time to push. This time I did dig deeper and gave it everything I had. Ella began to encourage me, "You're right there. The baby is almost here. Slower now, not as hard let's let their little head ease out." She continued to guide and instruct while she worked and suddenly the pain was gone.
I felt a warm mass land on my stomach and opened my eyes to see a bright pink baby who began to cry the second Bobby suctioned its nose and mouth. The world's most beautiful infant had a fine layer of short fuzzy dark hair and little feet and fists that wiggled to show their displeasure at being uprooted from their comfortable home.
I was speaking softly to the baby and rubbing its cheeks and head when I saw Hal's hand come around my stomach and pull the legs apart slightly to announce, "It's a boy!"
At 3:35 PM of July 29th on our lakeside deck little Halton Francis, who we would call Halt, (shortening his Dad's given name by one additional letter and honoring my father with his middle name) was welcomed into the world surrounded by his family.
I managed to look up and see my big Merry Men sporting grins and tears, not the least bit ashamed of the emotion of the moment. Ella took him to check him out and clean him up after Hal cut the cord and the guys followed her inside vying for a position to catch a glimpse of the newest RangeMan.
Bobby left us along in the tub to grab me a robe from upstairs giving the fullness of what just happened a moment to sink in. Hal rubbed my dramatically smaller stomach and commented, "Where are you going to balance your bowl of ice cream at night?"
I would miss the shelf my stomach had become, but it would be nice to see my feet again too.
"Thank you," I said to Hal.
"I'm pretty sure I should be saying that to you. You're the one who did all the work and gave us a son. You are the one who showed us all what a family was like. Thank you, Steph. That was just one more example of how amazing you are," Hal said before he turned to give me an emotional kiss. In that contact he poured all his love and devotion to me and I returned it as deeply as I could.
Bobby chose that moment to return and interrupted, "None of that. You know what the doctor and Ella said, at least six weeks with no sex. You may have to move back to your old apartment so Les can tell us if you have any slip ups." I wanted to be angry about the last bit, but I knew that Hal was a thorough lover and I was never able to be quiet so it really was true.
I got out of the tub and wrapped up in my robe sitting on a mound of towels in a chair on the deck for Ella to bring Halt to me. She blocked the view of the guys and helped me get him latched on for his first meal which he took to eagerly proving himself to be our son. Further evidence was given when thirty seconds later I swear he let out a soft moan as he received his first meal.
Hal left my side only long enough to call my parents and invite them over to meet their only grandson. Apparently my Dad told my mother he didn't give a flip about her hair not being ready he finally had a grandson and he was leaving right then. Grandma Mazur was on a swinging singles senior cruise so I could relax that the celebratory mood wouldn't be turned into a circus upon her arrival.
I tired out pretty quickly and realized I wasn't sure what to do. Ella suggested Hal and the guys be given their first chance to baby sit and she would assist me in getting showered and ready for a rest.
I reluctantly handed him off amazed at how much I loved that little bundle wrapped in a RangeMan embroidered receiving blanket. He was only moments old and I already realized he was my heart moving around outside my body.
Ella held on to me for support as my legs felt a little wobbly. Bobby saw our slow progress and scooped me up to help with the stairs. I let my head rest against his broad shoulder and sighed out, "Thank you Bobby."
He planted a kiss on my head and replied, "Thank you Steph. That was the most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed. I have spent my life learning how to heal others from injuries and violence, but I've never been able to apply what I know to bringing life into the world. I'm a lot more excited about the day Gina and I begin a family because of the example of you and Hal."
He deposited me in the shower and left me to get clean. I took a deep breath and caught the fresh smell of Hal, Old Spice and sea. I wondered if Halt would come to recognize that smell as his fathers too, or if one day it would become his own.
Ella fixed my hair and helped me into a flowing sundress to return downstairs.
I sat on the couch able to absorb the scene in front of me. Tank was sitting cross legged on the floor. No small feat for such an enormous man, trust me. Ranger was on one side with his legs stretched straight in front of him and Les was on the other side squatting low. They were all looking at a sleeping Halt in a low cradle on the floor. Cal was pushing it ever so slowly side to side. I wondered how many nights we would do the same thing to soothe him in the days and weeks to come.
My eyes filled with tears and Hal knelt in front of me drawing my attention away from the unbelievably tender scene in on the floor. "What's wrong Steph, are you in pain, do you need something?"
I put my hand on his and rubbed it softly shaking my head no. "I've never been this happy," I confessed. "Each day with you is better and now with our little Halt I see that continuing. The guys are here, my folks are coming, the baby's asleep I am perfectly content."
His smile in response told me he understood exactly what I meant. ESP had nothing on us. Our love helped us stay connected and words weren't always necessary to communicate.
I glanced behind Hal to the guys cooing over my baby and noticed Lester slip something in the cradle. "What was that Les?" I couldn't help but ask.
He grinned sheepishly and picked it up to show me. Les had found a soft blue fleece stuffed gun that rattled quietly when shook it and put it in as a lovey for the baby. I wanted to object and threaten them that they better keep their weapons and ideas far away from my little boy but I shook my head instead.
It was a crazy family – it was loud, occasionally crass, diverse, protective, strong and close knit. It was mine…and with its newest memeber it was perfect.
A/N: Whew! I can't believe Hal and Stephanie's story is actually over. This one was hard to close as I grew attached to my version of the quiet Hal from Janet's stories. I'll be starting another story next week, but for now I want to say thank you to all of you who encouraged, suggested, supported and reviewed every time I posted a new chapter. You guys are the best and have made sharing my crazy ramblings so much fun. Thank you! ~Jennifer